No matter where you are, you probably don’t have to go far to find a bar. Fortunately for the fictional occupants of comic books, most of them don’t have to go far, either. Whether you’re a scumbag looking for respite or a superhero looking for a scumbag, there’s a comic book bar for you. And whether the comic is realistic, cosmic or somewhere in between, the bar setting creates atmosphere and relatability for readers.
Noonan’s, Hitman, Art by John McCrea
In some comics, a bar is practically another character, taking on a role similar to cities like Gotham or Astro City. In Garth Ennis and John McCrea’s Hitman, Noonan’s—full name, Noonan’s Sleazy Bar—is a comforting home base for a collection of antiheroes and doofuses. Superpowered assassin Tommy Monaghan goes to Noonan’s to drink and hang out with best friend Natt, rival hitman Ringo and father substitute Sean (Noonan’s owner). Meanwhile, sloppy drunk Sixpack and the rest of superhero spoofs Section 8—including the perverted Bueno Excellente and a demon endlessly proclaiming “I am Baytor!”—ranted and raved, like real-life bar weirdos (and they still do, in the current miniseries Six-Pack and Dogwelder by Ennis and Russell Braun). Everyone is welcome at Noonan’s, more or less. It’s a haven for the creepy, the weary and the thirsty.
In Steve Orlando and ACO’s recent Midnighter series, Boston bar Al’s Masse was crucial in the development of the main character. Midnighter, created by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch in Stormwatch, has always been an openly gay badass. But most stories after Ellis and Hitch’s sequel series, The Authority, disappointed, and the character was neglected for years. Orlando used scenes in Al’s Masse—chatting with Tony the bartender, playing pool, talking trash—to add layers to a character who is literally a fighting machine, usually treated as only that. By showing Midnighter chatting with Tony about the difficulties of fostering relationships while making time to kill bastards, Orlando proved that even a superhuman with a murder computer in his brain is sometimes just a guy in a bar.
Probably due to some lingering odor of the Comics Code Authority or other prudishness, comic bars are often associated with bad guys. Many watering holes are, as Obi-Wan put it, “a wretched hive of scum and villainy.” Lowlifes abound at Josie’s, which might be the most famous comic book bar (debuting in Daredevil #160). Josie’s has long been a favorite spot for Daredevil to rough up criminals in search of a lead—particularly poor, bumbling Turk. The version of Josie’s on the Daredevil Netflix show is more upscale and less crime-soaked, but still serves an important purpose: it’s the preferred dive of Foggy and Karen, who need a drink quite often.
Kadie’s Club Pecos, Sin City, Art by Frank Miller
created another memorable bar for his creator-owned comic Sin City at publisher Dark Horse. As seen in many comics and the terrific first Sin City movie, Kadie’s Club Pecos is a place for roughnecks like Marv to catch their breath and entertainers like Nancy Callahan to strip. In another crime classic—Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Criminal—the Undertow is the site of many a shady deal or sketchy meeting. It’s fitting that the bartender is named Gnarly.
In The Humans—an all-too-brief Vietnam-era comic featuring anthropomorphic chimps in a motorcycle gang—bars are important for stress relief and plot development. In the heightened world of simian biker gangs written by Keenan Marshall Keller and illustrated by Tom Neely, each sect has their turf, and the focus of that turf is the bar: a place of safety and security. In one issue, the Humans have to chase away the scummy Skabbs, a rival gang, from Kirby’s Roadhouse (presumably named for the great Jack Kirby). Later, the Skabbs launch a brutal attack on Kirby’s that sets the horrific and satisfying violence of the last few issues in motion. Kirby’s is home for the Humans, and you gotta defend your home.
In crime comics like Criminal and The Humans, bars escort the reader into a sewer of lowlifes. But for series with a heightened reality, bars are a grounding factor that don’t necessarily foster sleaze. At Marvel, the Bar With No Name is a place supervillains can get a drink and (usually) not be bothered. Magic users in the DC Universe and Marvel Universe can go to the Oblivion Bar and Sorcerer’s Bar respectively. If you find yourself on Oa, there’s always Warriors, the watering hole opened by Green Lantern Guy Gardner, which presumably specializes in absinthe. Even in outer space, a bar brings characters down to earth.
Kirby’s Roadhouse, The Humans, Art by Tom Neely
The most bar-filled comic on the superhuman side of things might be the aforementioned Stormwatch. Writer Warren Ellis frequently used bars to ground the characters. It’s difficult to imagine electrocuting God (something character Jenny Sparks did in The Authority), but it’s easy to imagine drinking in bars (something Sparks and teammates did often). Stormwatch featured almost as many bars as alien-human hybrids, as member of the UN-sponsored superteam often had a few at Clark’s or the Wolfshead.
They also went to the Last Shot, which is the most Warren Ellis comic book bar ever. As James Bond analogue John Stone describes in the Ellis’ comic series with artist John Cassaday, Planetary, some former nuclear scientists from the Soviet Union discovered the true nature of souls, and that “heaven and hell are nothing but siege engines set in a constant tug-of-war against each other, and souls provide the coal.” So these nuclear technicians “have their last drink and their photo taken here, and then go to be strapped to an underground test device” that ensures their souls neither ascend/descend to a final destination. That’s how “the afterlife gets cheated.” Who wouldn’t need a drink after hearing that story?
Dealing with death and decay is a frequent theme of comic bars, often in subtle ways. The Undertow was originally the Undertown, but the N fell off and was never replaced. In Hitman, “sleazy bar” was graffiti added to Noonan’s name that eventually became the real name. There’s a metaphor there somewhere. As life goes on, things deteriorate or get defaced. Everything falls apart eventually. But if we’re lucky, we get to keep going somehow, and if we’re really lucky, we have a welcoming bar nearby.